FBI: Reported hate crimes in Vermont tripled in 2016

Participants in a November 2016 Statehouse rally against election-related hate offer a variety of messages.

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Hate crime incidents reported by law enforcement agencies in Vermont tripled in 2016, according to statistics released Monday by the FBI.

Vermont authorities reported 25 incidents last year compared to 8 in 2015. The 2016 total is the highest since 2005.

The FBI compiles national statistics on crimes motivated by bias against a "race, gender, gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity." The annual report, which shows a 4.6% increase in hate crimes across the U.S., is based on data voluntarily provided by state and local law enforcement agencies.

Ninety Vermont agencies contributed statistics to the FBI's 2016 report. The Vermont Crime Information Center, a division of the Department of Public Safety, requests hate incident data from Vermont authorities on a monthly basis, then shares it with the federal agency once a year.

The 2016 FBI report shows that 16 of the reported incidents in Vermont were related to the victim's race. Five were based on religion, three on sexual orientation, and one on a disability.

According to the FBI's data, there were no hate crimes reported in 2016 in any Bennington County community.

Variances in tracking procedures between localities, and the number of incidents that likely go unreported, both limit the accuracy of the FBI's data. But law enforcement officials say the numbers still indicate valid trends.

Julio Thompson, the director of the civil rights unit of the attorney general's office, said that while he was troubled by the number of incidents, he was not surprised to see an increase.

"Frankly, a lot of Vermonters told us they would expect that," he said. "There's a part of me that's relieved the numbers aren't much higher based on what we're hearing from the community."

Thompson said his office has heard a "chorus" of concerns about the increased visibility of white supremacist groups and the threat of changes to federal immigration policy.

He also qualified the FBI's data, noting that Vermont statistics are subject to the "law of small numbers": relatively small totals amplify the perceived rate of change from year to year.

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said the increase may reflect two simultaneous trends: that some individuals feel more emboldened to act on hate or prejudice, and that victims feel more empowered to report misconduct.

The broadened awareness is a positive change, del Pozo said. "We'd rather have the information and be unable to make a case than not know something happened. Lower level acts of hate can be warning signs for more serious developments to come."

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Karen Richards, the executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, attributed the increase to a divisive election year.

"What we saw prior to the last presidential election was that there were a lot of people who kept their explicit bias under wraps," she said. "I think that we now have a culture in which that kind of behavior and talk has become more acceptable, so I'm not surprised that it is spilling out in actual actions against people."

Richards said that while her department does not handle hate crimes directly, the discrimination complaints they receive reflect a similar trend. She said the commission is "hearing from more and more people that there is a certain level of others feeling emboldened to say what they feel and act on it."

Robert Appel, a Burlington civil rights attorney, also attributed the rise to Donald Trump's "very vitriolic presidential campaign" last year. Referring to Trump's disparaging comments about Mexican immigrants and calls for violence at his campaign rallies, Appel said the president's rhetoric "has loosened the bonds of constraint of hateful people."

Appel cited a number of local incidents — including the KKK flyers placed at the homes of two women of color in 2015 and the stealing of Black Lives Matter signs at UVM and elsewhere in 2016 — as representative of the shift. "It's been one event after another in Vermont," he said.

Appel also noted that the increase in reported hate crimes correlates with a rise in bullying reports in Vermont schools.

Data released by the Agency of Education shows that for the 2015-2016 school year, incidents of harassment, hazing and bullying increased 20% from the previous school year. The total of 1,446 incidents is the highest since data collection was instituted in 2012.

Appel believes the trends are related. The rise in bullying is "a reflection of values in families that kids bring to school," he said.

Richards said the Human Rights Commission conducts trainings for state government agencies and housing providers on implicit bias. She hopes these educational efforts, along with public forums the department is holding across the state, will curb individuals' prejudices "spilling over" into explicit speech or action targeting vulnerable people.

"We can easily feel that we're all trying to do the right thing, but in reality, there's a lot of bad things happening to people of color and immigrants that have very real consequences," she said. "I think that we all need to be vigilant."

Thompson said the attorney general's office is also seeing greater engagement in its community outreach efforts, particularly among young Vermonters.

"We're seeing people engaged in public discourse in a civil way to a very, very high degree," he said. "People are coming up to us and asking us how they can volunteer to help. Before this year, we've never encountered people coming up to do that before."